STEVEN HAGEL photography | Dusy and Palisade Basin

Dusy and Palisade Basin

September 01, 2012  •  2 Comments

I was looking forward to this trip for months. The famed Dusy and Pallisade Basins would be my destination for a five day adventure. The Palisades make up the most alpine region in the Sierra Nevada with five summits in excess of 14,000 ft. This area is accessed from the east side between Big Pine, and Bishop, California. My plan was to depart out of Bishop and set up a base camp at a lake in upper Dusy Basin and do extended day trips from there. This was primarily a photography trip to shoot the classic evening shots of the sunset light striking the west faces of these impressive mountains. I had also done considerable research on a good class 4 climbing route up one of the big peaks. The choices are limited since these boys are steep on all sides and offer no easy ascents. I dismissed Thunderbolt and Starlight peaks since their summit blocks are pretty tough 5th class for a solo (free) ascent. I decided the LeConte Route on North Palisade looked superb - athletic and historic with interesting routefinding and the biggest of the bunch! North Pal is considered THE classic peak of the high Sierra. Sign me up!

I left the South Lake trailhead at 9AM on August the 25th and made my way past the numerous gorgeous lakes on the famously beautiful Bishop Pass Trail. Once over the pass at 12,000 ft, I left the trail and headed cross country into the upper Dusy Basin. As planned, I descended to my lake and made camp with some nice cumulus clouds building overhead.  Above my tent you can see Isosceles and Columbine peaks which would be my destination for tomorrow. I am psyched!  Room with a view

My pack was considerably heavier than previous trips up Bishop Pass due entirely to the ridiculous amount of photography gear I brought along. For lenses, I packed the Nikon 14-24, Zeiss 21, Nikon 45 PCE, and the Zeiss 100. A steller set of lenses, but HEAVY. My rational is that I only do a few of these trips per year and I want my best stuff along. I also enjoy the struggle of intense manual labor. A sufferfest once in awhile builds character. If the once in a lifetime sunset appears, I'm going to be ready. The first day will be brutal, but as a photographer it's sure fun having all the gear once you're up high. I do the pure climbing trips, where it's just a compact along; but I struggle fully adopting the Galen Rowell philosophy of light and fast on these types of primarily photography trips. 

The first day was the only one with clouds and my best images from the trip came from that day. Unfortunately, clouds obscured the sun before it got really low, but I was in awe as the colors began to change and the cloud shadows danced upon the peaks. Backbone of the Sierra

Pictured here from left to right are Mount Winchell, Thunderbolt Peak, Starlight Peak, North Palisade, and Isosceles Peak in the foreground right. North Pal is the most distant peak right of center. I'm proud of this composition because it took a lot of exploring throughout the basin to discover the shot I envisioned. When I found this location, light was just beginning to fade off the foreground rocks, and a great deal of minor movements and tripod adjustments were required to get the full mountain reflections shown wrapping around the foreground rocks.

The last rays of sunlight appeared once more as I switched to the 100mm telephoto closer to my camp. This is Starlight Peak, Thunderbolt, and North Palisade basking in low angle light. Completely alone in this amazing place, I watched the light slowly fade out as the stars began to emerge. Thunderbolt Peak and North Palisade

Calm, clear skies welcome day 2 as I awake late and brew some coffee. On the majority of my Sierra trips I'm on the east side of the crest, which means sunrise images are usually your best photographic opportunities and necessitate an early wake-up to capture the best light. Dusy Basin sits on the west side with not much action in the mornings, so I enjoyed sleeping in and waiting until the sun was basking the tent.

My plan for the day was to head south toward knapsack pass, hike up the col between Columbine and Isosceles peaks, and climb the east ridge of Columbine. Pure fun. I spot a nice clean headwall of good rock and climb it for several hundred feet to reach the top of the ridge. Climbing Columbine Peak

It's class 2-3 from there to the top. The views here are tremendous in all directions. Pure alpine! No lovely trees and grassy slopes. Just granite and crazy topography. It's not for everyone, but I LOVE IT!

Self Portrait

The summit is warm and cozy and there is nowhere I would rather be. On the descent, I head east toward Thunderbolt pass, wrapping around Isosceles Peak. The terrain anywhere off trail is extremely rugged. What looks like easy travel from a distance becomes a boulder labyrinth once you get into it. I traverse down past lake 11,393 and hit camp by early afternoon. I few fish are rising, so I rig up the fly rod. They eagerly take the little dropper nymph on most casts. A size 16 or 18 pheasant tail or hairs ear will catch lots of fish anywhere in the high sierra.

The sun drops low again as I set up the tripod. Directly in front of me, Mount Winchell takes on great color as the shadows develop in the recesses.

Last light on Mount Winchell

The moon rises above Isosceles and I head into my little one-man tent, tired and satisfied.

Isosceles Peak

Tomorrow is the big day. I read the trip reports and study the route photos for North Palisade. Elevation 14,242 ft. The first ascent was made on July 25, 1903 by James S. Hutchinson, Joseph Nisbet Leconte, and James K. Moffitt. 1903! The courage and determination they possessed is amazing considering the equipment they had and the uncertainty involved. These guys, as well as most first ascentionists, were bold and brave. Seriously, it's one thing to tackle a climbing objective, knowing the beta and hazards involved, but entirely different when you're venturing into the unknown.

"They approached the area overland from south of the Palisades, and scouted possible routes from the summits of Marion Peak and Mount Sill. Armed with this intelligence, they planned to ascend the southwest chute of the U Notch, and find a way to bypass the rock face between the notch and the upper reaches of North Palisade. Around 13,100 feet (4,000 m), they followed a northward branch of this chute, and slowly climbed a difficult system of cracks. From here they found a catwalk ledge that took them to a series of icy gullies, bound toward the summit. These gullies were blocked by a pair of chockstones, requiring class 4 moves to pass. Beyond these obstacles, they crested the southeast ridge, and climbed a series of granite blocks to the summit." Sleep came slowly after reading that exciting narrative of the first ascent. Tomorrow, I planned to follow in their footsteps over 100 years later.

Beep, Beep. 6:00AM Start. I'm up - quick breakfast and pack the daypack. Unfortunately, the camera gear stays in camp today. Gotta go light. The traverse across Knapsack pass into Palisade Basin is serious, time consuming boulder hopping. I descend the pass and traverse through the incredibly beautiful Barrett Lakes to approach the base of North Pal. I see numerous large trout at the outlet from the largest lake and make a mental note to return. There is no one around. Bishop pass was a highway of hikers, but once you are off the trail, the landscape is deserted. Palisade Basin

I climb east across Palisade basin to an elevation of 12,300 and begin to climb. The LeConte Route starts up the broad, talus-filled gulley southeast of the Southwest Butress. This is the Southwest Chute, and it goes all the way up to the U-notch separating North Pal with Polemonium Peak. I begin the slog (every great mountain route has some slogging) up the chute to 13,200 ft.

At this point, it's like 9AM, and the chute begins to choke off. The key is to find a hard-to-see ledge that crosses out of the Southwest chute to the next gully to the west.  This catwalk is exposed (!) and traverses down along a near vertical cliff. Exciting! Once in the next chute, the climbing goes from class 3 to class 4 as the mountain rears up and you work your way up to the infamous chockstones, which are the route's crux.

The first chockstone is passed on the left and and the second is passed on the right, which is low 5th class. I figured the movement would be awkward and burly ... but it's not, it's elegant and airy. You quickly learn that climbing fourth class routes in the Sierra means you may (most likely, will) encounter occasional sections of low 5th class. There was no one else on the entire moutain. I remember reading "Mountaineering - the freedom of the hills" when I was younger, and that's what I thought about here. It was exhilarating. How fast and free you move without a rope and the necessities of setting belays and anchors. It is amazing. I push upward.

I continue up to the summit bowl. About a hundred feet below the summit ridge, a ledge system leads you up and right. You leave this ledge and climb straight up for 20 feet and continue angling right toward the summit ridge up a steep, V-shaped weakness. Routefinding on the summit crest becomes difficult since it is littered with towers and blocks at every angle, making passage very trickly. I zigged 10 feet downhill to the left to the top of an overhanging boulder, wiggled through a a big horizontal crack, then went west toward the top through a  opening between huge rocks. I was close to the top. From here I climbed up five feet to a one foot square platform, and it's the moment of truth! You can see the summit 40 ft away over the top of this last obstacle, but you can also look straight down below you 2,000 ft to the Palisade glacier. Awesome! Hard climbing moves with relatively little exposure have never bothered me, but big air below is always a bit intimidating. Here goes! Batwing right, left foot on a hold up by your left ear, and mantle up onto the banister. A few more steps, and I was on the summit!

The conditions were perfect, warm and calm. I cannot remember ever being above 14,000 ft in such pleasant conditions. I wouldn't say I was entirely in nirvana, because I was a bit concerned about downclimbing some of the more difficult sections of the route. But, after a bit of lunch on the summit, the descent proved to be cruiser; and I was soon below the chockstones and the catwalk and back to the class 2 chute. I returned to camp via Thunderbolt pass navigating house-sized boulders along the way. I arrived back at my base by 3PM. An incredible day! - one of the best days in the mountains I can recall.

Day 4 was casual. I caught and released fish in the morning, then headed down to the lower Dusy Basin lakes. This area is spectacular, lower in elevation with some green added to the landscape. The view of the Sierra crest is somewhat shrouded by the lower ridges, but the lakes are truly beautiful.

Lower Dusy Basin

I strolled down toward LeConte Canyon, but the trail drops like a rock and I didn't want a huge afternoon climb back to camp. Next year, I'm going to try the North Lake to South Lake traverse and check that place out.

Back at camp, I watch one last sunset, knowing tomorrow it is time to leave. 

Thunderbolt Pass

Morning arrives and I pack camp and say goodbye to Dusy Basin. As much as I love the backcounty, I always look forward to heading home and reuniting with the family. I am always a better person. Renewed and refreshed with a new perspective. Balance. I snap one last shot back down at Bishop Lake and head for the truck. Peace.


















Jim DeGaetano(non-registered)
Awesome photos, Steven. Planning on Dusy & Pallisade Basins for September 2015. What I read & saw here is truly an inspiration! Can't wait!
Bob Bowman/RMB Images(non-registered)
Thank you for making my decision Steven! I've been toying around with a few trips and Dusy it is! I was there 15 years ago on my last leg from North to South Lake. I see you are looking to do that trip....It is a must!!! Evolution Valley thru Dusy is maybe the most gorgeous of all the Sierras. I've been to many areas but that section takes the cake. My daughter and I will be heading there in 2 weeks. We take 10 days and take 2/3 nighters then get a hotel to refresh before heading back out. Your shots are awesome and I plan on looking thru your portfolio. Please check out mine....I gather you will like my Sierra Gallery : )

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